An Australian public health expert says it's 'reckless and crazy' to suggest Ireland should copy Australia and aim for a zero COVID approach.
Professor Nathan Grills said countries will never open up to international travel again if they 'keep living in fear of the next variant' of COVID-19.
Along with their neighbour New Zealand, Australia has been widely praised internationally for limiting the spread of COVID-19 by strict border controls and a virus eradication strategy.
It has prompted many scientists and experts here to call for a similar approach in Ireland.
However, with a vaccine programme only now getting underway, some local experts in Australia believe a change in approach will be needed soon if the country wants to start reopening its borders.
Epidemiologists Nathan Grills and Tony Blakely recently penned an op-ed in the Australian Financial Review, saying international travel could be years away if zero COVID is the main goal.
Professor Grills - a professor and public health physician at the University of Melbourne - told The Hard Shoulder the rollout of the vaccine programme in Australia has been slow compared to Europe.
However, he said they have no option of opening their borders until a vaccine is rolled out 'quite widely'.
He said: “With vaccinations and a large number of infections, you will get to a point where you have a level of immunity that allows you to open up relatively safely.
"In Australia, where we’ve gone with elimination, we are very reliant on the vaccine entirely before we open up.
“There’s much more of a push now to say we need to get the vaccine rolled out.
"Until we do, our economy - which is very dependent on trade and travel - we’re closed for business when it comes to international [travel]."
Global eradication a 'pipe dream'
Professor Grills believes Australia will have to accept a small number of cases and outbreaks - albeit on a level they can control - as otherwise zero COVID would be reliant on global eradication of the virus.
Asked to respond to the calls from Irish experts for a zero COVID approach, the epidemiologist said: “It’s a bit reckless or crazy from my perspective. I think zero COVID requires you to have an international community that is going to be able to eradicate it.
“That’s still a pipe dream. It may happen in three or four years, but I don’t think anyone is expecting us to keep our international borders closed to get to that zero COVID level."
He said it's also now quite clear the virus is 'quite seasonal' - alongside vaccination and a high level of recent infection, Ireland will therefore have a 'real advantage' in opening up this summer.
One of the concerns around international travel is the presence of several variants of the virus - some of which are more transmissible, and may be more resistant to vaccines.
Professor Grills observed: “The variants are the unknown factor in the vaccine programme as well… a safe approach is to be able to monitor what the variants are doing.
"The only concern with that is typically when a variant is becoming more prominent, people test for it far more - and often it’s more in severe cases in hospital. You end up with potentially quite a skewed idea of how infectious that variant has… we’ve seen that even with the UK variant.
“I think the idea that there’s some wildly infectious variant that is going to come in and wreak havoc… there’s no evidence of that so far. They’re mildly more infectious than the non-variant varieties.
“If we keep living in that fear of the next variant is going to make it more difficult, then you’ll never open up… there’s no end point if that’s the approach.”